2018 Finalist Talia Lerner, Ph.D. Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Talia Lerner received her B.S. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from The University of California San Francisco where she worked with Anatol Kreitzer studying the mechanisms by which neuromodulators such as dopamine gate striatal synaptic plasticity. She then conducted postdoctoral research under Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University using optical technologies such as optogenetics, fiber photometry, and light-sheet imaging to examine how dopamine neurons are incorporated into neural circuits and to decode the information they communicate to the striatum. Now in her own lab at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Talia Lerner is interested in how dopamine circuits regulate reward learning and habit formation, and how individual differences in dopamine circuit architecture contribute to the risk for mental disorders. The ultimate goal of this work is to understand how neural circuits operate to produce the symptoms of mental disorders, inspiring new approaches to psychiatric medicine.

The Effortless Custody of Automation

Habit formation, the process by which behavior becomes automatic, is an essential survival strategy in a complex world. Which neural circuits are responsible for habit formation? How do they weigh the costs and benefits of automaticity and use feedback from the environment to regulate the formation of habits over time? Habit formation requires the striatum, the input nucleus of the basal ganglia, as well as dopamine inputs to the striatum from the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc). Talia Lerner has identified two parallel SNc dopamine neuron subpopulations projecting to the dorsomedial striatum and dorsolateral striatum. These populations differ in their biophysical properties, input wiring, and natural activity patterns during free behavior. Talia Lerner’s lab is now examining how the properties of these dopamine neuron subpopulations change with habit formation, and how forces such as stress and drug-exposure alter the course of learning by acting on these circuits. Her work provides an important foundation for future studies of the roles that habits play in a range of psychiatric diseases including obsessive-compulsive disorder and drug addiction.


For Talia Lerner's full essay, see Science online at sciencemag.org.